J. Joseph Edwards, 59, chairman of the American Bankers Association's Community Bankers Council, says his constituents bankers should be more concerned about competition from the likes of Charles Schwab and Microsoft than from out-of-state bank companies. The president of $225 million-asset United Bank Corp., Barnesville, Ga., believes bankers must use technology to compete effectively, He is working on an ABA computer network for bankers. Mr. Edwards, who holds an MBA and a bachelor's degree in finance from Emory University in Atlanta, worked in the family peach-canning business for 10 years before joining his father's bank in 1969. He started his year as chairman of the Community Bankers Council in October. As the group prepared for its national conference this week in Orlando, he discussed community banking issues with the American Banker.
Q.: Your focus as chairman of the CBC has been on technology instead of regulatory issues. Why?
EDWARDS: My hot button this year is communication among bankers. ABA has been working for about 18 months doing research on an electronic communication system, most recently (called) BEN, for Bankers Electronic Network.
What you could say we're trying to do is create the Internet for bankers. Our dream is to ... let bankers interact with their state associations and with the ABA, let them be able to have access to all the information that is in the ABA library and ... the congressional and state general assemblies and so forth. It is our hope that we will be able to read the American Banker on BEN.
Q.: What else should community bankers be doing with technology?
EDWARDS: I think it's probably the biggest problem community bankers face: How we do spend our technology dollars? Fortunately, the cost of technology has come down considerably.
To survive, we've got to know our customers and our employees and take real good care of them. But we can't survive with that type of banking if we don't have real good state-of-the-art back-room operations.
Q.: On the legislative front, many states are grappling with interstate banking and branching. What's your opinion?
EDWARDS: I pretty much see that as a nonevent. I think it's already happened. We've had interstate bank competition for some time.
Q.: Then why are some bankers so riled up?
EDWARDS: States that may not have had it may fear the unknown more than they should.
Once the major banks are able to branch and consolidate their separate banks ... there will be efficiencies there that will probably let them pay more for deposits and charge less for loans because they've got less overhead than we do.
But if it wasn't the interstate bankers, it was going to be the Charles Schwabs and the Merrill Lynches and the Microsofts. I think there are things that are going to come down that electronic highway that are going to eat our lunch more than interstate bankers.
Q.: What's your take on repealing Glass-Steagall?
EDWARDS: That's kind of a nonevent as well. We do discounted brokerage services. It's something we want to do more of, but we certainly would never underwrite issues or do any of those things large banks want to do.
I just think community bankers are going to be virtual bankers in the future. We're going to deliver a lot of products to our customers that we don't generate internally. I want our customers to think of us as the place to come for that financial service need whether we generate it in our back room or (not).
Q.: Is this increasing and more diversified competition why your conference focuses on serving the customer?
EDWARDS: If we don't take care of our customers, we're not in business.
What community bankers have got to deal with is how to still treat and reach our customers in the personalized way we have in the past, and which of these many technological things do we put our bucks in.